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Interview: Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz, USCG

40th Superintendent of the Coast Guard Academy

Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz has made a career of setting precedents: A member of the Coast Guard Academy’s class of 1982, she spent 12 years of her career aboard cutters. She was the first woman to be assigned to the CGCs Polar Star and Clover, and in 1990, became the first female to command a cutter in the Great Lakes: the CGC Katmai Bay, an ice breaking tug out of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. From 2002 to 2004, she commanded the CGC Reliance out of Kittery, Maine. As a former commanding officer of the Coast Guard’s recruit training center in Cape May, N.J., Stosz was a leading candidate to lead the Coast Guard Academy – a position to which she was assigned in December 2010 by Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr. She is the first female superintendent of a U.S. service academy.

In her change-of-command speech, delivered at the academy on June 3, 2011, Stosz tried to take the focus off that fact. “I don’t see this so much as a milestone,” she said, “but rather a natural progression in the Coast Guard’s efforts to create a climate of equity and inclusion.”

 

The academy has tripled the number of accepted applicants from under-represented minorities in the last three years, and more than one-third of the current incoming class is women. What kind of work is the academy doing to sustain this trend?

Rear Adm. Sandra L. Stosz: One example is the new engineering mentoring program we introduced this year. We partnered with four Historically Black Colleges and Universities to sponsor eight engineering students who completely embedded into our summer STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] recruitment program, where we work with high school students during three, one-week Academy Introduction Mission, or AIM, sessions. These students will then go back to their home schools and continue mentoring others through similar AIM experiences, all the while sharing their experiences at the Coast Guard Academy. Through this near-peer mentoring and leadership Mentor Academy, our cadets, engineering faculty, and admissions officers will be able to exponentially grow our outreach network, getting the word out to communities across the nation to the amazing opportunities we have to offer.

I should say that we take a systems approach – I see this program as not just a recruitment tool, but also as something that enriches the overall experience at the Coast Guard Academy. Not only will these eight students go back with a great message about STEM, the academy leadership experience and our community of inclusion, having these and future students with the program embedded in campus life will further enrich the diverse environment we’ve worked so hard to grow. I think that as we create an understanding of our programs, more students who major in STEM will consider coming here because of our community of inclusion. And I think they’re more likely, therefore, to succeed.

 

In your change-of-command speech, you mentioned that you would focus on retention as much as recruitment.

Retention of these students – keeping them in for four years and making sure we graduate them in an equitable proportion as we recruit them – is a big focus at the academy. We actually start our outreach to retain as much as six months before some students even walk through these doors, through a robust prep school program. We try to get them ready to come to the Coast Guard Academy and succeed. Once they get here, we administer an initial testing battery that enables us to identify youngsters of any background who might not have had the exposure to some of the tougher courses you might need to succeed. I wish they’d had that when I was here, because I really struggled with calculus and physics, and those two are related – if you don’t know how to integrate and how to differentiate, you’re not going to do well, and it becomes a downward spiral of defeat if you fail to keep up in both those classes. So we’re identifying the youngsters that need to have some extra help in that. We actually have – as probably most schools do – a tiered system, so students can be placed appropriately in courses from the introductory up to the honors level.

But testing and placement are only part of the picture. You have to follow students to make sure that as they go through their first year and second year, they’re not going to be behind – and that if they do get behind, it’s noticed. If they don’t self-report to an instructor for extra help, there is a system in place that notices this person is falling behind a little bit and needs an intervention. We’re looking at interventions and programs and support networks, even beyond what we already have. Understanding that our population demographic is changing a bit, how do we change our programs and interventions here during the four years so that we are constantly monitoring and tracking, while retaining the high levels of excellence?

 

You’ve identified several focus areas for your tenure. One is maintaining the academy’s progress in promoting diversity among the student body; another was strengthening the relationship between the academy and the maritime industry. It seems as if that focus, long term, is probably aimed at improving collaboration between the service and the maritime industry – but it also seems as if a tug operator who gets a good look at what the Coast Guard does might be more interested in pursuing a career in the Coast Guard.

Actually, what they do is they send their sons and daughters to us. A mariner can tell his or her kid: “We have the Coast Guard out here, riding with us, inspecting us, and they seem like a pretty cool organization.” Those partnerships, hopefully, can only improve the Coast Guard’s visibility, and can also ensure that anybody in America, wherever he or she might live, will have the opportunity to hear about the Coast Guard Academy – a tremendous education, paid for by the government.

Race, ethnicity, gender, and religion are only some of the components of diversity. I see diversity as getting our word out to the Midwest, or the Dakotas, or Montana, or to families working the Pennsylvania coal mines. That kid from the mining town, [which] might not be as robust as it was in the past should have a chance to hear about us, and to go off to the Coast Guard Academy and have an opportunity his or her parents didn’t have.

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Craig Collins is a veteran freelance writer and a regular Faircount Media Group contributor who...